Political Parties: Old Concepts and New Challenges

By Richard Gunther; José Ramón Montero et al. | Go to book overview

8 A Crisis of Institutionalization: The Collapse of the UCD in Spain

Richard Gunther Jonathan Hopkin

I believe that we gave to the world an example of how to complete an important political transition. But we also gave a negative example of how a party in power can commit suicide.

(Excerpt from an interview with a former UCD president)

Political parties are such a fundamental part of democratic political life that they take on an appearance of stability and solidity which is rarely questioned. Therefore when a political party collapses, political scientists are usually taken by surprise; for instance, few predicted the recent disappearance of the Italian Democrazia Cristiana and Partito Socialista Italiano. In this context, the remarkable collapse in 1982 of Spain's governing party, the Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD), long regarded as an exception to the rule of party stability, may provide some clues as to the causes of recent cases of party crisis.

The catastrophic defeat of the UCD in the 1982 general election was primarily the result of a reaction by the electorate against the highly visible internal struggles and schisms which beset the party during the preceding two years (see Gunther 1986a). In many respects, it represented a voto de castigo ('punishment vote') by an electorate which had become fed up with squabbles that had even reached the point (in the attempted military coup on 23 February 1981) of threatening the survival of the new democratic regime itself. In Western Europe, the only comparable historical precedent for this kind of party collapse was that of the Liberal Party of Great Britain following the First World War—and by no means was its electoral decline as precipitous as that of the UCD in 1982. 1

The purpose of this chapter is to explore the origins of these destructive intra-party conflicts. Several different explanations of this phenomenon have been set forth by scholars and journalists, 2 as well as by UCD leaders themselves in publications and in the course of extensive post-election interviews. 3

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